Postcards From Seattle
Tales of Strange Hot Dog Condiments and Odd Cuts of Beef.
Seattle-Style Hot Dogs
One night in Seattle last autumn, while en route from one cocktail bar to another, I passed a hot dog cart near Cal Anderson Park that advertised something called a Seattle Hot Dog.
I was with other people, so I could not stop to investigate. All I could do is register a “WTF” moment and move on. But I vowed to revisit the matter at a later date.
I was back in Seattle last month. At the top of my to-do list was to try a Seattle Hot Dog. I had done some research in the meantime and understood that it was a hot dog with the unusual condiment of cream cheese, a thing that is typically applied to bagels.
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The reaction of any out-of-towner who first hears of the Seattle Hot Dog is always the same, and boils down to “Ew!” That was my response as well. Everyone reflexively makes fun of Seattle Hot Dogs. It may be the most regularly ridiculed hot dog style in the United States. But I was happy to be convinced otherwise. Regardless, I knew I had to try one in the name of Hot Dog Research.
Unlike most other regional hot dog styles, the Seattle Dog is of recent vintage, being only about 30 or so years old. But like other regional hot dog styles, the origins and authorship of it are disputed. Most people agree the style emerged in the Pioneer Square neighborhood and many attribute them to a man named Hadley Longe who worked in a bagel shop and started putting hot dogs on bialy sticks. (Bialy sticks are different in shape, if not flavor, from the round bailys found in New York).
The main thing that most people agree upon was that the proper toppings for a Seattle Dog are cream cheese and grilled onions. Yet, the first Seattle Dog I had—one of the more famous in the city—defied this rule. It was at Dog in the Park, once a cart, it is now a small stand at the end of an angled building just off small Westlake Park. The stand claims to be the “Home of the Original Seattle Dog”. The cheerful young worker behind the grill explained that a Dog in the Park dog was piled high with not only grilled onions, but peppers and cabbage. The cream cheese was slathered on the inside of the bun, which was grilled. The frank itself was a jumbo beef number, split open and grilled.
The vendor displayed significant artistry in assembling the hot dog. And the result was both picturesque and delicious, though the cream cheese ranked as only a faint background flavor. Still, I had the feeling that I wasn’t eating a true Seattle Dog, but a variation, a cross between a Seattle Hot Dog and the slaw dogs found in some Southern states.
So we hopped in a Lyft and rode to Matt’s Chili Dogs, a charming stand in South Seattle. We were served by Matt himself, who’s been in the hot dog business for 31 years. He told me he had been doing business for a few years when he heard of the Seattle Hot Dog and started serving then. Some time after that, a man name Harlan approached Matt and told him that he was the creator of the cream cheese dog. (He probably meant Hadley Longe, not Harlan.) Matt believed this until he met another old timer who said “Harlan” had stolen the idea from him.
Matt cheerfully does not care who invented the thing. He just served them. (Food writer Hanna Raskin wrote an extensive oral history of the Seattle Dog for Seattle Weekly in 2012.)
Matt’s Seattle Dog was completely different from the one at Dog in the Park. The franks were the typical small variety, served on a normal, untoasted bun, and topped with grilled onions and a thick squiggle of cream cream, applied in the fashion of mustard. It was, quite honesty, a rather lackluster frank and made me long for the Dog in the Park version.
I still felt I had not experienced a classic Seattle Dog. But my time in the city was limited and I could not sample any further examples.
Paris Writer/Seattle Ghost
The last two times we’ve been in Seattle, we stayed at the Sorrento Hotel, a recommendation from Seattle native and colleague Paul Clarke. It’s our kind of hotel—old, grand, with a long history and much of its original architectural appointments intact. It feels like an island disconnected from the greater, more modern city that surrounds it. The building itself is shaped like an L, with wings stretching out on either side of the lobby. The angled entrance is set far back from the sidewalk inside a courtyard. The courtyard contains a short bit of road, but not a roundabout, so cars can enter it, but can only leave by backing up. As a result, most cars simply pull up along the sidewalk outside the courtyard wall. This inadvertently adds to the hotel’s charm, because the building is unsullied by automobile traffic.
Upon entering, the front desk is to the left. A stuffed peacock stands behind it. To the right is the hotel bar and restaurant, Stella. Directly ahead is a wood-paneled octagonal room with multiple seating opportunities, a fireplace and a ceramic mural above it made by the famous Rookwood Pottery Company of Cincinnati. This is the hotel’s unusual lobby, once called the Fireside Room. I’ve never seen its like in any other hotel.
To the left of the lobby is the elevator, where the carpet is changed daily to reflect the day of the week. (Not sure what day it is? Look down.)
The hotel opened in 1909. It was commissioned by clothing merchant Samuel Rosenberg and designed by architect Harlan Thomas, who later became the first dean at the School of Architecture at the University of Washington. It was named for The Vittoria, a hotel in Sorrento, Italy, that was built in 1834. It was remodeled in 1981 and 2002, all without ruining its original character. It is reportedly the oldest hotel in Seattle still doing building as originally intended.
But the most interesting feature of the Sorrento may be its ghost. We learned of this specter early, while lunching in Stella. When I signed the check with my room number, the waiter noticed we were one door down from Room 408. Room 408 is where the ghost dwells. He told us not to worry, however, because it was a “friendly ghost.” I pictured Caspar.
I did some research and discovered that the Sorrento phantasm is not just any spirit, but believed to be the ghost of Alice B. Toklas, the author and life partner of writer Gertrude Stein. This seemed exceedingly strange, as Toklas is famously associated with Paris, which has hundreds of hotels to haunt should she wish. But Toklas’ family lived in Seattle in the 1890s, where her father was a successful businessman. The Sorrento Hotel did not exist when Toklas lived in the city, but, the theory goes, it was built where her childhood home used to stand.
After that, we glanced at Room 408 each time we walked to our room. We never heard a sound from within, which was a bit of a disappointment.
Gracilis. Teres Major. Coco Lei Lei.
Do these words mean anything to you?
They meant nothing to me until I went to Bateau and saw them and other confusing language written on a large chalkboard. This board was to serve as our menu at Renee Erickson’s unorthodox steak house. At Bateau, Merlot is not a wine and Velvet is not a fabric, but two unfamiliar cuts of cow flesh.
I took a picture of the menu with my iPhone and we studied it at the neighboring Boat Bar while waiting for our table. We didn’t want to order any run-of-the-mill cuts that you could get at any steak house. Beside, we couldn’t. There was a rib eye and porterhouse on the list, but they were $192 and $287, respectively, for their smallest versions. There was a filet, but it had been crossed out. That meant the cut had already been ordered by someone and was no longer available. It is Erickson’s concept at Bateau to not serve only steaks with which we are all familiar, but every single piece of the cow, section by section, until every bit of the animal is used. Most of the chalkboard was dominated by cuts I had never heard of.
There was very much a beat-the-clock aspect to ordering. We engaged in a long conversation with the waiter, trying to discern what all the weird cuts were like and which we might enjoy. All the while, other waiters kept approaching the chalkboard with what looked like a pool cue with a piece of chalk attached to it. They would then cross out another item. Our choices were disappearing by the minute before our eyes.
All the cuts all had a few things in common. They had all been dry-aged for 21 days; they were all sold by weight, leading to reasonable prices that allowed us to choose several different cuts to try; and, once ordered, they were all cooked in a cast iron skillet.
We finally settled on the deckle (also known as the rib cap), gracilis (the top round cap, similar to a skirt steak), underblade (part of the chuck from underneath the shoulder blade) and bavette (from the bottom sirloin). With each, we got a different kind of butter: nori butter, anchovy butter, bone marrow butter and lemon-brown butter, respectively.
Soon after we ordered, sure enough, the gracilis and underblade were crossed off the chalkboard. We had gotten the last of them.
The steaks were not served as individual dishes, but brought to the table as a single plate. My favorites were the deckle and the gracilis, but that may have had something to do with the butters in question, nori and anchovy.
The excellence of the meat notwithstanding, the best thing I ate at Bateau was not a piece of steak, but a salad. It was called Billy’s Tomatoes, and was composed of ripe tomatoes, chewy bits of smoked shank, mayonnaise, and toasted, crunchy brioche breadcrumbs. I couldn’t make heads or tails of the thing until the waiter explained it was simply a deconstructed BLT. After hearing that, I understood completely and had to have it. It was among the most delicious and ingenious dishes I’ve ever had, savory and sweet and luscious.
Rightly or wrongly, I tend to shut off my brain when I’m at a restaurant. I’m there to enjoy myself and unwind. The meal is more a sensory experience than an intellectual one. At Bateau, however, I really had to use my mind. I had to rethink my notions of what a steak house was and ponder the anatomy of the animal I was eating in all its detail. I’m not saying I want to embark on such a thought exercise every dinner hour, but it was a refreshing change of pace.
Odds and Ends…
I wrote a profile of bartender and spirits educator and hostess with the hostess ms. franky marshall. It’s in the current issue of Imbibe magazine. (Sorry no link yet.)… I was a guest on Philip Duff’s podcast, talking about everything from theater to books to Dead Rabbit. Actually, quite a lot about Dead Rabbit for some reason… I will be pouring cocktails and signing books at Amor y Amargo in the East Village of New York on Wednesday, November 1, from 6 to 8 p.m. Copies of The Encyclopedia of Cocktails will be available for purchase… I will be attending the Athens Bar Show Nov. 7-8. Perhaps I will see you there. Bar recommendations are welcome!… Measure for Measure, directed by Alan Kopischke, will run a the University of Wisconsin Green Bay on Nov. 2-4. Click here for tickets… Alicia Kennedy is relaunching her Substack newsletter with a promise of guest contributors, a book club and more. It will become “more of a magazine,” said Kennedy… Willy Joe’s, an Allentown hot dog stand in business since 1945, is up for sale… A bill introduced in Wisconsin would make the Brandy Old-Fashioned the state’s official cocktail, the Washington Post reports. This is something I have pushed for for nearly a decade. I hope it happens. I have to take issue, however, with the Post’s assertion that Brandy Old-Fashioned have sometimes been garnished in Wisconsin with hard-boiled eggs and cheese curds. In all my years, I’ve never seen that. Brussels sprouts and mushrooms, yes, but never eggs and curds. I suspect the authors of the article are confusing the drink with Wisconsin’s version of the Bloody Mary, which is very top heavy with savory garnishes.